My general practice is to write on Taiwan tea history, or to babble on about some issue or other that I think is worthy of an opinion. This month however, I will focus on some of the things I have experienced on my just completed trip to Taiwan.

A lesson learned anew: higher isn’t necessarily better when it comes to Taiwanese tea.

Growers (and tea vendors no less so) like to emphasize the elevation of the gardens from which their teas are produced; and there is a general correlation between elevation and leaf quality.[1] But so much of the quality in a fine tea depends upon the skill of the tea maker who is processing the tea. Tea produced from leaves grown at 2000 meters is not necessarily better than tea from leaves grown at 1200 meters. Processing skill is crucial. I saw this to full effect on a visit to Dayuling, once the highest growing region on the island[2].

A reclaimed tea garden in Dayuling

As I prepared for my trip, I determined that I should go to Dayuling to try to learn what is in store for that tea now that much of the land has been reclaimed by the government and the tea plants yield their space to much needed reforestation projects. I was lucky to have made the online acquaintance of a grower there who invited me up to see for myself.

There are only two growers left on Dayuling point and only five if you extend the notion of Dayuling as low as K88.[3] The total production of this generous definition of Dayuling is about 5000 jin per season.[4] Forty percent of this production is controlled by the grower at K95. Yet the demand for Dayuling tea remains very high due, largely, to its prior reputation as the highest grown tea in Taiwan. This high demand and limited quantity drives up the price, which was already high, even higher. And these high prices in turn encourage over production and counterfeiting. Beware of the many “authentic” Dayuling teas on offer.

Tea gardens at Dayuling

Assuming you can get your hands on true Dayuling, is this high grown tea worth the price? I was treated to a tasting of a selection these teas and there is no doubt that some were very fine; but no more so than a Lishan grown at similar elevations.[5] And there was a fair bit of mediocre tea as well. Furthermore, in terms of value, none of these teas is as good as many teas grown at a considerably lower altitude. A good, well made Shan Lin Xi is far preferable to mediocre Dayuling; especially when the latter starts at about $NT5000 per jin as opposed to  less than half that for the SLX.

A new lesson learned: The quest to identify origins

Another great learning experience I had involved the attempt to develop a system to curb counterfeits in Taiwanese tea. Using isotope markers, researchers have successfully distinguished tea origin at a broad country level; Vietnamese teas exhibit different patterns than do Taiwanese teas. The next step is to extend this to the level of within country origins; to distinguish an Alishan from a Lishan, for example.

Meg Chen logging samples

Collecting leaf samples

In order to do this leaf samples from different locations must be collected and analyzed and I was fortunate to have been asked to accompany a research team as they gathered samples in Alishan. Leaf samples were collected from multiple locations in the region and the elevation, aspect and time of day were meticulously logged for each. The samples were sealed in clear plastic bags to be taken back to the laboratory where they would be analyzed using gas chromatography. Researchers thereby hope to discover the isotope patterns for each individual region. 

The ability to query the researchers on their work led me to understand the direction that a nascent national appellation system might take.  I learned too that the Taiwanese Agricultural Yuan (equivalent to the Department of Agriculture) has been examining the various appellation systems for wine in an attempt to determine what can be borrowed from these.

Taiwan’s current, and unused, regional indicia

But what about the existing labels of authenticity that can be but rarely, if ever, are used to guarantee authenticity? The answer was provided by the several tea growers we met on the excursion.

The problem stems from how these labels are conferred. In each area it is the local Farmer’s Association that oversees the process and the use of the label is controlled by the regional mayor. If a farmer wants to use the label on a given tea, this tea must be isolated in a storage location controlled by the local association. The accreditation process can take as long as two months; and that’s two months with no tea sold. Farmers simply aren’t willing to endure the hardship of waiting. The label, in their view, simply isn’t wort it.

If science is able to detect patterns that are related to origin (the tests involve both fresh leaves and made tea) an important step in the direction of guaranteeing authenticity will have been taken. To be continued.

Some Random thoughts and observations

  • China is the leading market for Taiwanese tea exports. Tea producers are working hard to establish brand presence there.
  • Despite blaring loudspeakers, often too late into the night, seeing an election campaign in progress was fascinating. In the end, the Greens (DPP) were badly beaten by the Blues (KMT).
  • The Taiwanese High Speed Rail puts to shame anything Amtrak has to offer.
  • Production costs in Taiwan run about $NT250 per jin for high mountain tea.
  • Over 80% of Taiwanese do not want integration with China but a preservation of the status quo.
  • Local (excellent) Taiwanese food, which uses many indigenous ingredients, is vastly different from what we think of in the west as “Chinese food.” Actually, there is no such thing as “Chinese food;” rather there are multiple regional Chinese foods.
  • Anyone remotely interested in the history of Taiwan or China must visit the National Palace Museum in Taipei. It is a mind boggling collection of art and artifacts.
  • Breakfast at Hong Ye

    Breakfast at He Yong in Taipei is a must – even if soy milk is not your favorite.
  • The Taiwanese are kind, gentle and open people. I am sure one must exist elsewhere but I’ve never encountered a nation so warm and welcoming. I am so glad that I can call many Taiwanese friends in the truest sense of that word.

That’s my take. What’s your view?

[1] As elevation increases and temperature drops, the leaves tend to be thicker with higher pectin levels. The pectin leads to richer, more satisfying mouth feel.

[2] Dayuling is still among the highest of growing areas with elevations up to 2500 meters. Previously, however, the region boasted growing elevations as high as 2600 meters. These gardens mostly had been planted without authorization and were located within the boundaries of Taroko National Park. The Taiwanese government has reclaimed all the land above 2500 meters and is in the process of returning it to its natural condition. A maximum elevation of 2500 meters has been established throughout the country for tea gardens. For a relatively balanced presentation of the issue see: https://eco-cha.com/blogs/news/116366660-the-basic-facts-behind-the-reclamation-of-dayuling-tea-farms.

[3] Traditionally, tea gardens in Dayuling have been identified by their kilometer location along Highway 8. The higher the kilometer location, the higher the elevation of the garden. KM 110 was a particularly sought-after tea; it is no longer is made.

[4] One Taiwanese jin equals 600 grams.

[5] Dayuling really is a Lishan and according to some opinions never should have been marketed separately from the Lishan appellation.

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